Leveling the Playing Field: Simplifying the College Application Process
No matter the school or student, there’s one piece of the college application process that consistently causes headaches: college entrance exams. These exams have long been viewed as an efficient and reliable metric for evaluating students’ abilities and predicting first-year college grades and readiness. However, much research has shown that performance on entrance exams like the SAT® and ACT® tests is better at predicting demographic characteristics like class, race, and gender than educational outcomes and common conclusions have been drawn that if tests are overemphasized in the college application process, they can contribute to a significant loss of diverse talent. The resulting shift in how entrance exams are used has tangible implications for educators and students alike.
Changing Parts of the College Application Process: Entrance Exams
Across the nation, we are seeing considerable changes in how SAT and ACT scores are being used. Prior to the pandemic, shifts were already occurring in college admissions, with many opting for test-blind or test-optional admissions, and since the pandemic, these practices have only increased.
In the University of California system, for example, SAT and ACT scores will no longer be used, and college entrance is based on a holistic student view with emphasis on grades, accomplishments, and extracurriculars. On the other end of this spectrum, more than 20 states call for either the SAT or ACT exam as a requirement for high school graduation.
Below, we will look at what different types of college entrance are in use, why college entrance exams are still important, and how you can level the playing field to be more equitable for all students by providing opportunities and resources.
Understanding Your Student’s College Application Process
Many colleges and universities are choosing a test-optional admissions process. If students elect not to test or test and decide not to submit their test scores, everything else matters that much more in the application process. Rigor and grades will matter the most, supported by a powerful story.
This option can be helpful if students’ test scores do not fall within the upper 50% range of their desired school or don’t reflect their high school academic performance. If students are anxious test takers or don’t plan on taking the test multiple times to improve their scores, this may be the option for them. However, if students’ extracurricular activities are not going to set them strongly apart, showing potential via standardized testing should be considered.
According to Robert Franek, editor-in-chief at the Princeton Review, “If you take the SAT or ACT and are not pleased with your scores, then exercise your test-optional right to not submit them. But if they are valuable to you and they could be a differentiator in your college application, then submit them. If you never take the test, you'll never be able to make that choice as you're applying to college.”
Test-blind admissions mean that scores will not be reviewed for any candidate for admission, even if submitted. Colleges with this policy are relatively open and accessible to most students. If students’ exam scores are not competitive, these schools may be the best choice. However, there are relatively few test-blind colleges and universities in the U.S., so if students want to apply to test-blind schools, that may limit their choices.
While many colleges and universities are moving away from mandatory admission testing for the short term and considering staying away for the long term, electively testing is still an important way for a student to distinguish themselves from other applicants. High test scores enable students to demonstrate academic competitiveness and earn scholarships, and they are viewed as a definitive way for college admissions boards to view potential.
Because grading systems and rigor of curricula vary greatly in high schools, high GPAs may not always indicate high ability in applicants, so taking a universal test allows everyone to be seen in the same way and shows the potential that students are able to achieve outside of their hometown high school courses.
Leveling the Playing Field for the College Application Process
Equitably supporting students in the college application process means individualizing the approach based on the student. It means considering the whole learner and ensuring they have the tools they need, whatever avenue they choose, to test or not to test. Consider adding the following ideas to your existing college readiness support to address disparities in access and opportunity:
- Schedule specific SAT and ACT preparation courses like Apex Tutorials during the school day. This gives students access to quality tools to ensure they are test-ready without the expense associated with high-cost prep programs.
- Implement online test preparation programs to create flexibility in access. If a student has out-of-school obligations, this allows for them to work within their individual schedule.
- Equip specific campus personnel to advise students in writing outstanding application essays that can truly set them apart. Workshop impactful storytelling so that students can effectively communicate their story.
- Brainstorm and create unique avenues for students who cannot participate in extracurricular activities due to family or work obligations so that they can demonstrate community involvement and achievement.
Final Thoughts: Making the College Application Process Accessible to All
Considering the holistic student and providing resources for the non-traditional applicant as well as quality access to test readiness tools will help to close these gaps in access and opportunity and will structure a path to college that can flex with changing application processes.
To learn more about preparing students for the ACT and SAT tests, read 5 Tips for Educators to Help Students Through College Entrance Exams.